LOS ANGELES — Lakers center Andrew Bynum might have been wrong to voice his opinion that NBA playoffs are easy to win.
But one need only look at the Lakers’ recent playoff performances to understand where Bynum came up with his proclamation.
Before the Lakers’ Game 5 loss at home to Denver on Tuesday, the Lakers had won eight consecutive close-out games. Their most recent loss in that situation came against Houston in Game 6 of their second-round series on May 14, 2009. Since that loss to the Rockets — their roster included the former Ron Artest — close-out games had become a Lakers speciality.
Under the now-retired Phil Jackson, L.A. beat Denver in six games and Orlando in five to win the 2009 NBA Finals. In 2010, the Lakers made it back-to-back titles by knocking off Oklahoma city in six, sweeping Utah and then winning a memorable Game 7 at STAPLES Center to win the Finals against arch-rival Boston.
The Lakers’ streak lasted for one series in last year’s postseason, as they beat Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets in six games before being swept out by eventual champion Dallas in the second round.
Jackson, of course, coached the mental side of the game maybe more than anyone in history, so his teams were prepared for nearly any situation, no matter the magnitude of the series.
One can go all the way back to the 2000 Western Conference finals — Jackson’s first season in L.A. — when the Lakers blew a 3-1 lead against Portland and trailed by 13 going into the fourth quarter of Game 7 at STAPLES Center. Instead of giving up or panicking, the Lakers proceeded to manhandle the Trail Blazers and Scottie Pippen, punctuated by the now-famous highlight of Kobe Bryant passing to Shaquille O’Neal for a rim-rattling alley-oop dunk. That pretty much ended Portland’s hopes of a historical comeback, and L.A. went on to beat Indiana in six games for the first of five titles under Jackson.
After the win against Portland, virtually every player on the roster — from O’Neal and Bryant to Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Brian Shaw — talked about how Jackson’s teaching methods kept them from falling apart when things got bad.
“Phil’s a different kind of coach,” Fox said at the time, “which makes him perfect for (this team). He always preaches for us to take control of the moment and to believe in each other.”
Now, fast-forward 12 years to the first playoff series of the Mike Brown era. The Lakers had everything going for them heading into Game 5, including the comfort of playing in front of their home fans.
None of the advantages meant a thing, though, as the Lakers allowed JaVale McGee and Andre Miller to score at will, while the Great Orator Bynum decided to play as he has too many times in the past — lackadaisical and without passion. Even Bryant’s dazzling four three-pointers in the last four minutes couldn’t overcome Bynum’s non-effort, so the Lakers are in Denver on Thursday to play a critical Game 6, potentially without Bryant who missed the morning shootaround with flu-like symptoms, instead of preparing for Oklahoma City.
Would the Lakers have taken Jackson’s philosophy to heart and put away the Nuggets on Tuesday? Possibly, but we’ll never know. After the loss, Bryant referred to Jackson at least twice. So their former coach is obviously still on their minds.
The question now becomes: Is Brown’s way of dealing with this team so drastically different from Jackson’s that some of the players just aren’t listening and, therefore, jeopardizing a long run in the playoffs?
That’s a very good possibility.
Bynum has been taking subtle and not-so-subtle shots at Brown all season long and has seemed to tune out the coach, even stepping away from the huddle during games while Brown is speaking. While we don’t know what Brown says to the team behind locker room doors, he doesn’t usually blast his players in to the media, something Jackson wouldn’t hesitate to do if he had a point to make.
We won’t really know how well Brown fits with the Lakers until their playoff outcome is finalized. But this much is fact: Not putting away an opponent when one has an opportunity is hazardous to attaining your goals.
The Nuggets go into Thursday’s game loose and full of confidence that they can beat the Lakers at the Pepsi Center. They also know Bynum is likely to get frustrated early if things don’t go his way, so expect Denver coach George Karl to send constant double teams Andrew’s way as soon as the game begins. And when Bynum is out of sync offensively, he’s been known to slack off on the defensive end.
Then there’s the OKC factor.
The Thunder are resting up at home, waiting for the winner of this series. Injured players such as James Harden and Lakers tormentor Kendrick Perkins are able to get more treatment. And even if the Lakers do beat Denver, they’ll have at least two fewer days to prepare for the Western Conference’s second-best regular-season team.
After the loss Tuesday, a note was posted on the grease board in the Lakers locker room suggesting they “pack for 3 games,” meaning one in Denver and the first two in Oklahoma City.
Obviously that was meant for the media to see and report, because Brown could have easily said that to the team during the postgame cooling-off period. So, maybe Brown is channeling his inner Phil and trying to use the media to send a message to the Nuggets that the Lakers are back on point.
Now, if he can only get the same message through to his own team.